Jun never wanted to be here. Not standing in brilliant white and pastel pink amongst a sea of black, accepting medals that weren't hers.
She moved numbly through the ceremony, her armband her only outward display of grief. The world would only see the graceful Swan, subdued and demure as the presenter slipped one medal around her neck, and placed the weight of two more — two lives — into her hand. Then there were words to say, words ISO's PR department had written for her.
At one time she might have objected. She'd have demanded that her speech give a sense of who their two lost comrades really were. Now, she was grateful that all she had to do was memorize. People wanted to hear about courage, sacrifice, and perseverance. They didn't want the truth.
Somehow Jun didn't choke on the words or hurl. Her speech done, she retreated to the side of the stage with the others. As she idly scanned the crowd for any signs of Galactor hold-outs, her sight kept blanking, showing her only blood. She shuddered and blinked it away.
The medals hung heavy in her hands, where she clasped them in front of her to keep the gleaming awards visible. Unable to look down, she could have sworn they were dripping, forming fresh pools at her feet.
Keep it together, G-3, she ordered herself. Not much longer.
But she knew she was lying. An army of dignitaries and notables had gathered to sing the team's praises. Some they'd actually helped, though she couldn't bring herself to figure out which. It didn't matter, anyway. No one here wanted the truth. They wanted to celebrate the idea of the team, the "shining champions of justice."
Who was she to stop them? She just wished the blood would stop dripping. Its metallic scent kept filling her nostrils. Even with the volume in this venue, she could hear the drops landing, one by one.
"Listen to these assholes," said Joe with a smirk. "Do they get paid for how much hot air they spew?"
Jun ignored him. Trust Joe to make snide cracks while someone praised his "noble sacrifice." A group of children arrived on the stage, making her blink again. She didn't recognize them, but supposedly the Condor had saved them, and they'd created a banner in his memory.
"Nurse, I need insulin. Stat!" Joe groaned, shaking his head. "Is that misshapen blob supposed to be me?"
She shot him warning glare. They probably worked hard on that banner. It was a sweet and genuine gesture, which as far as she was concerned was a breath of fresh air among all the empty speeches.
A video montage started, its blaring musical opening taking her off guard. She jerked and felt a soft touch on her hand. Looking over, she found Jinpei watching her with concern. She gave him her best reassuring smile. After all, they'd endured far worse than having to stand still and look pretty.
Drip, drip, drip.
So much blood. It stained the grass at Cross Karakoram, and the stones he'd grabbed onto for support.
"Jun, call Ken."
"None of that now," said Joe, squeezing her shoulder.
She ached to reach up and break Joe's fingers. Instead, she forced herself to keep still. The medals pulled, sapping her strength, but the world had no right to see past her mask. Not when it was so weak, forcing them to fight so hard to keep it safe.
Ken slid his hand into hers. "Just a little longer, Juni."
Her eyes stung. She had no use for liars, so she yanked her hand away.
"You can't stay angry forever."
When Ken reached for her again, Joe grabbed his hand. "Leave her be. She's got a right to be pissed."
Ken rolled his eyes. "Pot, kettle, black."
"You're the dumb shit who made promises."
"Don't fucking lecture me, Mr. Revenge At All Costs. Did you ever think about what it would do to us? Did you even care?"
"What, me lecture, Mr. Literally Lectured Me to Death?"
Jun clenched her teeth, trying to ignore them. That couldn't be a scuffle she heard behind her. They wouldn't be fighting on today of all days, making a scene during the grand memorial.
The shout of pain was too high for Joe. While she wouldn't mind adding a punch of her own, she gritted out, "Quit it you two."
A thud and a smack followed. Then the sound system kicked in again, another montage playing. Jun's eye twitched as a group of pretty girls climbed the stage, holding up a banner, then telling the story of how they were saved by the Eagle.
Joe snorted. "When did Galactor invade cheerleading camp, and why wasn't I invited?"
"My fans at least have artistic talent." Ken leaned forward, looking over the banner.
"All those short skirts and you care if they can draw?" Joe barked out a laugh. "You're so hopeless."
"There's only one short skirt …"
Jun shot Ken a withering glare. For once, though, he'd managed to catch himself before shoving his foot fully into his mouth. Why couldn't they go bother someone else? She didn't need this. Not now.
Meanwhile, the blood dripped louder. Each drop plonked into a deep pool, which slowly spread to consume the stage. Jun nearly gagged on its overwhelming presence, unable to take a single breath without tasting copper and rust, and realized she was clenching her hands. She forced them to relax.
"Almost there, Juni," said Ken softly from behind her. "Almost there. I promise."
He cupped her cheek tenderly, an infinite warmth in his sky blue eyes. "You know I can't be with anyone, Juni. I can't divide my attentions or be distracted. I won't let any of you be killed."
"But you need something to fight for," she pleaded. "We see so much death and misery. Can't you steal some moments for yourself?"
Ken leaned in close, capturing her lips with his. Her toes curled, and she returned the affection with everything she had. She had to make him see it was okay.
Eventually, though, they had to come up for air. He rested his forehead against hers, so close she could feel his quickened breathing.
"Juni," he whispered, "I can't. I promise you this, though. If we both survive this war, nothing will stop me again."
Eyes stinging with tears, she smiled. It wasn't exactly what she wanted, but it was enough. Plus, her smile broadened to a grin as she realized she could keep trying to change his mind.
Jun felt a terrible pressure building. She stomped it down, determined not to ruin the memorial by belting out a scream. Inside, though, she railed.
What a fucking liar. How could he promise her that? How dare he?
"I meant it, Juni." Ken stepped in front of her, eyes filled with tears. "I'm so sorry."
Joe grabbed his arm and pulled him behind, muttering under his breath. At the podium, they were going on about dedication, honor, and valor. It took everything she had to remain silent.
Bullshit. Every single word was bullshit.
Two lives lost to the war. That was the story, how the Condor and Eagle succumbed to the final battle. How very fucking courageous they were, constantly throwing themselves into danger, sacrificing themselves for the sake of everyone else.
She itched to grab the mic and scream the truth. Cowards, both of them. How hard would it have been for Joe to talk to them? Why didn't he trust them to honor his wishes?
And Ken …
For a moment, the idiots behind her stayed quiet, then Joe broke the silence. "So, you really did it."
"I took the direct route," said Ken, his voice flat. "You took the indirect. Same result."
A gloved hand smacked against a helmet behind her.
"You idiot," grumbled Joe. "I gave you a fucking future."
"A future where I left my brother and best friend to die alone, surrounded by the enemy," Ken snapped back. "Thanks."
Another speaker came into place. Yet another droning about leadership and courage.
"This is such crap." Footfalls moving back and forth told her Ken was pacing. "So we blew up some mecha. On all the really important stuff, I blew it. I tried to roast Jun and the flowers sent out more spores. We try to take Katse down and he throws himself into the lava, then your shuriken accidentally jams the fucking machine."
Jun wanted to cover her ears. She gripped the medals, ordering herself to stay still. The blood had consumed the entire stage, now, each drop echoing as it hit the pool.
"What did I fucking do, aside from abandoning the people I loved when they needed me most?" Ken's voice was tight, full of bitterness. "How could anyone ever forgive that? I couldn't even forgive myself."
"Christ, Ken, you're such a drama queen." Joe sighed. "Jun would've forgiven you. She could never stay mad at you."
She grit her teeth. Oh yes, yes she could.
"It would have festered." Ken started to sound so lost, but Jun refused to pity him. "Everyone I've ever loved has left me behind. My father even managed it twice. Eventually Jun would have understood why. She would have left too."
Idiot! Jun felt tears coursing down her cheeks. For three years she'd fought with everything she had. She fought because someone had to, because she could, because she was good at it, because she wanted Jinpei to grow up in a world free of Galactor, and because she could see her own future so clearly. When Ken finally admitted he really did love her, she'd thought she might literally burst with joy.
What was there for her now? Ken was all about duty, but when it came down to it, where was his duty to her?
Blaring music jolted her back to the present. She checked herself, ensuring she was standing straight, not wanting to appear undignified. This was a memorial. Tears were okay. Sobbing like a child was not.
"You know, Ken," said Joe, "When you fuck up, you really fuck up."
There was a pause while a new speaker took over.
"Fuck you, Joe," Ken responded. "You left me too."
Sighing, Jun steeled herself. They finally took pity on her, letting her ride out the rest of the memorial in silence until she numbly followed the others backstage.
The moment they were hidden, Jinpei took her hand, guiding her to a chair. Gratefully, Jun sat, leaning against him as he wrapped an arm around her.
"You okay, onee-chan?"
Jun closed her eyes. "Yeah. Those idiots were driving me crazy. Can you believe it? Heckling a memorial!"
She knew that above her, Jinpei and Ryu exchanged worried looks. Normally she avoiding sharing Ken and Joe's visits, but she was too tired to censor herself.
"Maybe, uh," said Ryu, "maybe it'll let them rest."
Poor Ryu. Good thing she loved him like a brother. He was terrible at lying to humor her. "Maybe."
Jinpei rubbed his hand along her back, just like she used to do when he wasn't feeling well. "When we get home, we'll get you something to eat and your meds, and you'll feel better."
"How could I possibly feel better?" she snapped.
Jinpei's jerk back was like a punch to the gut. Sobbing, she pulled him close and held him tight. "Don't leave me. Promise you won't leave me."
"I won't, onee-chan," he said softly, rubbing her back again.
It wasn't fair. She was supposed to take care of her little brother, not the other way around. That was the only reason she'd agreed to move with him into Hakase's house. He could go to school and make friends, be a normal kid, without worrying that on her own she might follow in his big brothers' footsteps.
Like she'd give those stupid, selfish assholes the satisfaction after they left her with nothing. But Jinpei hadn't left her. He hadn't, and if she found him that way too, she couldn't stand it.
Jun started inspecting him for blood, hands shaking as it got harder and harder to breathe. Strong arms wrapped around her as the room spun. Familiar voices, laced with concern, hovering and surrounding her until a pinprick in her arm promised blessed peace.
But not before Ken dragged her down with him.
Dark hair matted in blood, stuck to the dried pool he lay in. Hands trembling, she checked for a pulse, though she knew it was futile. Then she caressed his cheek. He felt so cold, so empty. Yet even now he was heartbreakingly beautiful.
Years of training had her looking for clues, but her ninja skills weren't needed. He'd slashed his own wrists — the correct way, of course. After all, everything he did was perfect. Trust him to get this right on the first try too.
Someone let out a keening sob. It took a moment to realize it was her. Why did she always have to find them? Would she find Ryu or Jinpei next, dead in a pool of blood?
Was she the angel of death?
Sheet by sheet, she pulled the wadded up pages from the wastebasket by his desk. Smoothing each out, she read, vision blurring as she followed his erratic train of thought as he tried to compose his last words. She'd had no idea. He'd never offered a glimpse to his private hell. How long had he been carrying so much guilt and self-loathing? How much more had no one ever told her?
By the time she finished reading, she felt sticky, covered in blood. His was dry, she was sure of it, and the coppery tang was so thick in the air she could taste it.
Joe crouched next to her. "Call Hakase, Juni. You don't have to handle this alone."
She tried, but couldn't make herself deliver the news. Not again. Instead, she curled up next to the pages. With each whack of her bracelet, Jun knew the others would come. They'd come and fix this. They'd give her back the perfect, shining future she'd fought so hard for.
After all, Joe was back. That meant they could fix anything.